‘Why do you write like you’re running out of time?’
—from the song Non-Stop, in the Broadway musical Hamilton
Almost two years ago POSITIVELY AWARE published an issue focused on HIV long-term survivors. It was one of our more popular issues, generating scores of comments and letters. It seemed to have struck a chord with many of our readers who are long-term survivors of HIV themselves, and are now having to deal with issues they never dreamed of, such as affordable housing, dwindling finances, and the psychosocial issues that often come with experiencing such great loss and trauma.
In September at the United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) in Hollywood, Florida, the film Last Men Standing screened on a Saturday night, followed by a panel that included journalist Erin Allday, the health reporter who conceived of the project, along with Jesús Guillén and Mick Robinson, two of the men featured in the film. Allday, and the filmmakers Erin Brethauer and Tim Hussin, followed eight HIV long-term survivors for nearly a year (which she said is unheard of and had never been done before by the San Francisco Chronicle), detailing their lives as gay men living in San Francisco in the ’80s and ’90s and who survived the AIDS epidemic, but not unscathed. Immediately following the film’s screening at the conference a friend turned to me and said, “You don’t see this film, you experience it.”
I’ve experienced Last Men Standing four times now, most recently when TPAN, publisher of POSITIVELY AWARE, co-presented the film at Reeling 2016: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival, and each time I see it I recognize another little piece of me somewhere in the film. Last Men Standing ran first as a special section in the Chronicle in March of this year, and then as a documentary, which premiered at the Castro Theatre in April. Allday informed us that the film will be available on one of the big streaming services probably sometime later this year or early 2017.
Two of the men in Last Men Standing, Ralph Thurlow and David Spiher, also participated in our A Day with HIV anti-stigma photo campaign this year, and are included in a special section in this issue. Their story of dealing as a couple with the effects of Ralph’s HAND (HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders), is prominently featured in the film, and serves as a poignant reminder of the beauty and fallibility of survival.
Brethauer, one of the filmmakers, told me recently in an email that she thinks “the most powerful thing this film can do is both bring awareness to our communities but also bring a measure of healing to all the people who lived through this era. We’ve seen that in the cities where we’ve screened the film. People want to talk afterwards and share their experiences. The men who bravely opened themselves up to share the darkest parts of their experiences as long-term survivors, make it possible for all of us to understand, empathize, and hopefully continue these important conversations about how to help this community continue to heal and be heard.”
Stories have the power to move us, to illuminate, and to be transformative. Last Men Standing is a story of tremendous hope, and of dreams lost. It’s also a story of resilience, and acceptance. It’s a tale of a generation who suffered, and walked through the fire, but who continue to try to find meaning though their own unique experiences of survival.
I was really excited to see issues around HIV and aging and long-term survivors being addressed at this year’s USCA, including a Sunday morning seminar I co-presented with my colleagues from The Reunion Project, a program for long-term survivors we started a year and a half ago. Towards the end of the seminar Judith, a long-term survivor of HIV, stated that, “We are the voices and the faces that are going to make a difference for those behind us,” and ended with, “This is my first USCA, but not my last. Because I’ve found my tribe.”
That is why we need to continue to share our stories of hope and survival, and write like we’re running out of time. Writer, professor, television host, and political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry said it best during one of the conference plenaries: “Nobody promised you would be here for the win. But know that there were people who did the work before you, and there will be people who do the work after you. And during your part of the relay, pick up the baton. You don’t have to do it alone—engage, ask questions, go ahead and be bold, or fail; do something that you don’t expect to win. Write something that is better than who you are.”
Take care of yourself, and each other.